Today's topic is more general and abstract than most I've covered until now. Still, I believe it is an important topic even if some of it may seem obvious. It is also an extremely simple concept but has far reaching implications. The topic I will cover today is that the world in a table top role-playing game such as D&D is created and shaped by its rules as well as the story telling abilities of the Dungeon Master.
For the purposes of this piece, I will focus on two different ideas on world building. The first is that the world is created by the descriptions the Dungeon Master uses to bring his world to life and the story that is being told. The second is that the world is created by the rules and rulings the Dungeon Master uses to run the game. In order to get my point across in its entirety, both parts need to be considered and defined.
The World as Storytelling
The Dungeon Master is responsible for describing the world and making it come to life through story telling skills. He may use elements such as props but the core of the story is still created by the story telling skills of the Dungeon Master. Without this communication between the Dungeon Master and the players, a game cannot be run smoothly.
The World as Rules
Sooner or later the Dungeon Master will need to make a ruling. These rulings are either based on a set of rules or are made up on the spot. Regardless, they serve to create the internal consistency and rules for the world the story teller is making. Even without the story teller saying a single word the rules will say certain things about the world as well as build a certain vision. They can also tell a story of their own (a very simple example is that if your players see a wizard casting a certain spell, they can determine the minimum level of the spell caster based on the spell cast).
Storytelling and Rules Together
The line between the two is blurry or non-existent. Rules describe the world. The description the Dungeon Master gives describes the world. However, each one tends to require a slightly different mindset.
I could probably go on for a long while about the importance of these two ideas and how they interact. However, I'm going to try to keep to the heart of the topic. For the best game, both schools of thought should be considered. They should support one another in order to create a richer experience and world for the players. It is something we instinctively do since just about any story follows its own internal consistency. The difference is that in table top role-playing games the actors are acting on their own accord and not purely written by the mind of the author.
Summary in a Single Sentence
World building in tabletop role-playing games can be thought of at least two ways (the description and story that builds the game is one way while the rules that run under the game and form the framework for the limits the players act within is another) and they should be considered.